Construction management capstone instructors honored for exceptional teaching during pandemic

An example of team feedback with five students, five industry mentor/judges, and faculty. It's an example of how Brad Benhart said "we ‘leaned into’ the pandemic as a learning experience for the students."

Even though the COVID-19 pandemic closed classrooms on the Purdue University campus, the virus couldn’t deter the Polytechnic’s innovative teachers. Instructors from the Polytechnic’s School of Construction Management Technology’s (CMT) capstone team remodeled their teaching tactics to ensure lessons continued to hit home. In the process, the CMT capstone class became even more authentic to real-world working situations in the construction industry, and earned its instructors Purdue’s award for Exceptional Teaching and Instructional Support during the COVID pandemic.

Virtual is the new reality

Luciana DebsLuciana Debs, assistant professor of construction management technology, described the pre-pandemic procedure for CMT students’ semester-long, group capstone projects.

“In previous semesters, we would invite several people from industry and students to watch each team’s (in-person) capstone presentation. It was possible to sense the tension in the air,” she said. “However, in spring of 2020, we started to use video conferencing for the final presentations, so students did not need to watch each other’s presentation anymore. This actually became more similar to how industry does it — in a ‘closed room.’ And we were able to have professionals from across the United States attend the presentations. In fact, one of the judges mentioned they had just been in a presentation of the sort and it looked a lot how we were doing it with our students. So, we ended up providing our students with a real industry experience, after all.”

“We ‘leaned into’ the pandemic as a learning experience for the students,” said Brad Benhart, associate professor of practice. “We regularly had virtual updates from industry executives on how they were adapting work as an essential industry.”

When the semester moved on to fall 2020 and spring 2021, the construction management technology (CMT) instructors reflected upon their experiences and developed additional support for their students. For example, when they encountered issues with space limitations, Debs created videos for most of her lectures.

“Instead of teaching three two-hour sections per day, I would have five one-hour sections in a day,” explained Debs. “Student still got the same amount of material and I was still able to maintain contact time with all teams.”

With only an hour to dedicate to class time, Debs would “flip” the class, meaning she would use the shortened class time with her students to assist them with their final group projects rather than lecture to the class.

“Students who missed class were encouraged to phone or video conference in and most took advantage of that, given the collaborative nature of the class. Whenever possible, and to not let quarantined students fall back, we allowed them to participate remotely with their groups.”

Debs also incorporated video feedback on studio projects. This enabled students to have a detailed description of what was needed and allowed them to review videos as many times as they needed.

“This was not something I had done before, but with COVID, it was clear that we needed to take advantage of some of the good technology out there to help our students succeed,” she said.

Virtual "closed room" presentations like this one, with company representatives from across the country, are actually more like typical industry presentations, according to a company representative who served as a senior capstone presentation judge.

Collaborations across Purdue

“Since we were not able to take students to construction sites, we brought them to the classroom through virtual tours,” added Benhart. “During the University closure, we worked with Purdue’s Capital Program Management team and did guided tours of the construction projects and safety protocols here on campus.”

During the pandemic, the Polytechnic even featured a collaboration between CMT students and their counterparts in the Department of Computer Graphics Technology (CGT), with the guidance of Clark Cory, associate professor of computer graphics.

“The CMT capstone students ‘subcontracted’ with the CGT capstone team, led by Professor Cory,” explained Benhart. “The CGT students helped bring the CMT team’s designs to visual life. All of this had to transition to virtual collaboration between two separate capstone programs with respective teams from each course. It created the same challenge that industry builders, architects, engineers and designers were having when they could not travel to collaboration meetings.”

Assistance and encouragement

Throughout the three COVID semesters, students remained engaged and the CMT capstone instructors never experienced a significant drop in class attendance. Debs credits her team for this achievement.

“This was only possible because we had a really great team of instructors,” said Debs. “We coordinated every activity and knew when topics would be presented to students, no matter who would be teaching them. We held weekly meetings to discuss how things were going, our challenges and new opportunities. These meetings were essential to manage the class, and also to manage students that we felt could be at risk. Despite attendance not being a factor in final grades, we were still very much paying attention to who was coming – or not coming – to class and we reached out to those we thought could use some help. For some students, knowing that we cared and that they were not invisible really made a difference.”

“In an effort to assist in the financial hardships, industry colleagues even stepped up to the plate and donated books and trade journal subscriptions to the students,” added Benhart.

In addition to Debs and Benhart, the CMT capstone honorees include Clark Cory; Rabita Rajkarnikar, internship program senior manager; Cy Rangel, adjunct professor and senior project manager; and Danny Wyman, construction management technology lecturer.

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